As I mentioned the other day, I’m not exactly into Hallowe’en, and really never was. You might think that’s strange. I don’t. Nor do I think it’s strange that I’m really not all that into horror movies, or science fiction, or anything dealing with the paranormal. I mean no offense by that. I know a lot of you read and write horror, science fiction, and other stories dealing with the paranormal. It just doesn’t do anything for me.
See, none of that is anywhere near as terrifying to me as putting on a costume and knocking on a stranger’s door. When I was growing up in the 1960’s, I was always hearing stories about kids who received an apple with a razor blade in it, or a popcorn ball laced with LSD. There were places you could take your candy to have it x-rayed to make sure there wasn’t anything meant to cause immediate harm (razor blades, needles, etc.), but there was no way to tell if there was poison or some illegal substance wrapped up in that Mary Jane.
I had the great fortune and great misfortune of learning to read at an early age. One day when we were living with my grandparents, I was sitting looking at a grocery store ad in the Tribune while Walkie, my grandmother, was bustling about the kitchen making breakfast. I looked up and said, “Look, Walkie! Oranges are on sale at the A&P, only three cents each!” Walkie stopped in mid-bustle and said, “Where did you hear that, Johnny?” “It says so right here,” I said, pointing at the picture in the ad. I was three going on four, if I remember correctly.
Anyway, taking this newly-acquired superpower, I read just about everything, including the poison labels on various household cleaning products. I’m pretty sure I asked my father what “harmful or fatal if swallowed” meant. When I found out I could get very sick and die from swallowing the contents of the container, I understood what the skull-and-crossbones meant. And it scared me.
See, life was scary enough. I was scared of plenty of things, even a few strange things: water heaters (especially in the bathroom); EBS tests; public restrooms maintained by the Lien Chemical Company (a successful and no longer existing restroom sanitation service based in the Chicago area, who cleaned most of the restrooms along US Route 66 and, it seemed, the world); fire drills; and a host of other seemingly-innocuous things and occurrences. We had a major solar eclipse on July 20, 1963, and, for weeks prior to it, commercials from the Hadley School for the Blind warned us (probably against their selfish interests) against looking at it, lest we be struck blind as a bat. Those ads, combined with all the warnings in the newspapers and on TV, had me scared to death to even leave the house on what turned out to be a very nice summer afternoon. When I did go out, I stayed on the porch, and when a friend from down the street came over and told me that he and his grandfather had been watching the eclipse through Grandpa’s telescope, I was convinced that he was blind, even though he could see fine.
I look back now, and think I must have been the strangest kid in the world.
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from The Sound of One Hand Typing